These sleep problems may increase risks of cognitive decline, dementia

In a new study, researchers found that middle-aged adults who report symptoms of insomnia and are sleeping less than six hours a night may be at increased risk of cognitive impairment.

They found that adults who reported insomnia and obtained less than six hours of measured sleep were two times more likely to have cognitive impairment than people with the same insomnia complaints who got six or more hours of sleep in the lab.

The results may help health care professionals understand which patients who report insomnia are at increased risk of developing dementia.

The research was conducted by a team at Penn State College of Medicine.

Insomnia is characterized by reports of difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep.

When these symptoms occur at least 3 nights a week and for at least 3 months, it is considered a chronic disorder.

According to the team, about 25% of the adult general population reports insomnia symptoms and another 10% suffers from chronic insomnia.

Being able to distinguish which of these individuals are at risk for further adverse health conditions is critical.

In the study, the team examined data from the Penn State Adult Cohort, a randomly-selected, population-based sample of 1,741 adults who had one measured night of sleep.

They found that adults who reported insomnia symptoms or chronic insomnia and slept less than six hours in the lab were two times more likely to have cognitive impairment when compared to good sleepers.

They also found that this association was particularly strong for adults with coexisting cardiometabolic conditions and cognitive impairment, which may be an indicator of vascular cognitive impairment – a condition where poor cardiovascular health results in impaired brain function.

Adults who reported insomnia but who slept six or more hours in the lab were not at risk of cognitive impairment when compared to good sleepers.

The team also found that insomnia, cognitive impairment and cardio-metabolic conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, often tend to co-occur in adults who get less than six hours of sleep in the lab but not in those who can sleep six hours or more.

This study is important because it is the first large U.S. prospective study associating insomnia with cognitive risk.

Recent scientific advances indicate that the brain depends on sleep. Understanding the connection between sleep deficiency and early cognitive decline could lead to improved treatments for insomnia.

One author of the study is Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health and sleep specialist.

The study is published in Sleep.

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